Readers who know Toni Morrison's work only from her surreal classic "Beloved" will be surprised by the subtlety and humor of her new novel. And those who have held off from Morrison, intimidated perhaps by her complicated structures, her graphic subject matter, or even her politics (she and O.J. are the only ones still looking for that small-gloved killer), should start here with "Love." This is the carefully crafted work of a storyteller entirely unburdened by her Nobel Prize. No pretension deadens her rhythm, no self-importance forces her wit, no presumption of Significance bloats her significant insights.
The story floats in the glorious past of a shuttered hotel, "the best and best-known vacation spot for colored folk on the East Coast." Bill Cosey, long dead, was the larger-than-life proprietor whose "pleasure was in pleasing," who promised his guests "the best good time this side of the law." What he saw, which other entrepreneurs didn't, was a market for black entertainment, a classy establishment where black men and women could enter the front door, enjoy a fine meal, and hear the best music.
But now, only the women remain, women Cosey raised and married and hired and flattered - old women locked in battle. Hidden away upstairs is Heed, his arthritic second wife, "the meanest woman on the coast." Down below in the kitchen, Cosey's granddaughter, Christine, storms away. They've already survived other rivals, and now each one is waiting for the other to die. Cosey's ambiguous will has kept his estate in limbo, and so Heed and Christine have hunkered down for a war of emotional attrition with biannual skirmishes, "bruising fights with hands, feet, teeth, and soaring objects."
Morrison plays up the gothic comedy of these warring old women well, but she also presses deep into the complexity of their ruined affection for each other. Trapped in Cosey's old mansion, both realize "the fights did nothing other than allow them to hold each other. Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself."
Morrison narrates as a kind of erotic tease, holding back information even while tempting us with it. The reasons for this cold war between Heed and Christine creep into the story, slowly at first, gradually bringing to light the horrors we've grown to suspect but can't admit. Those two Mississippi wonders, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, would feel right welcome in this old house.
Cosey's cook, L, the only person who ever exercised any control over him and his cat-fighting women, provides an astute commentary on the mossy past and the overcharged present. Her wisdom extends from okra to sex in an age that doesn't know anything about the first and thinks it knows everything about the second. But she speaks only to us. For the world, the world so shameless, she only hums, her "way of objecting to how the century is turning out."
While the story laces into the past, the static conflict between Heed and Christine is disrupted by the arrival of Junior, an opportunistic girl who answers Heed's ad for a personal secretary. Her abusive family, years in juvenile detention, and a stint in prison have taught Junior well in the arts of survival and lying. But those are familiar skills for Heed and Christine, and each women feels confident the girl can be bent to her cause against the other, ignoring the fact that Bill Cosey, even from the grave, has won himself another crooked little heart.
When Morrison published "Beloved" in 1987, the screech of that saw-wielding ghost was enough to tear away what patina remained on the Southern plantation, the "rebel culture" still defended - remarkably - by fans of the Confederate flag. But in "Love" her voice has lowered to wry asides, whispers of gossip about the white power structure that ground away at Cosey despite his apparent freedom. She is, as always, the most profound commentator alive about the effects of living under the threat of white attack, white reprisal, white humiliation. But the moral palette of this novel displays a full range of colors, providing as powerful a defense as ever against critics who claim her men are all demons, her women all victims.
Ultimately, "Love" reaches a point of real reconciliation, but it's cast, as it must be, in the dark light of lives wasted in conflict, spent trying to satisfy a patriarch who should have been denied. Unlike the other women who've sacrificed everything for Cosey, only L, his cook for 50 years, understands that "he was an ordinary man ripped, like the rest of us, by wrath and love." She knows the corrosive effects of private shame that eat away at self-worth, leaving only myths undisturbed. Disturbing such myths may be the greatest of Morrison's many skills.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to Ron Charles.